The Hawthorne Effect, or, a lesson in the power of a story

31 10 2009

The Hawthorne Effect is one of the most familiar stories in the history of organizational psychology. Like most familiar stories, it’s also a little bit wrong.

The most famous of the experiments carried out in the General Electric Hawthorne Plant in the 1920s and 1930s to determine the best ways to increase productivity involved the lighting provided in workrooms. The researchers thought, not unreasonably, that increasing the level of lighting in the workrooms might increase the productivity of the workers, whether by allowing them to see better, keeping them more alert, or factors not otherwise accounted for. And productivity – easily measured on a production line – indeed increased. The factor that got everybody’s attention was what happened in the other experimental conditions. Where lighting intensity was not changed, productivity increased. Where lighting intensity was decreased… productivity increased. The researchers not unnaturally concluded that they were neglecting an important element of the psychology of the participants, and that by merely making them aware that they were participating in an experiment, the participants were stimulated to work harder. This wasn’t an unreasonable explanation, particularly given what we know now about the profound power of people’s expectations in an experimental setting. All trials of medical drugs, for instance, are now “double-blind” (neither doctor nor patient knows if the patient is receiving the drug being tested, or a placebo) so that neither’s expectations can cloud the actual influence of the drug.

The Hawthorne effect has enjoyed a prominent place in psychology textbooks and experimental methodology ever since. The reality, of course, is not quite as simple as the story. While productivity did increase briefly in response to numerous small tweaks in working conditions, the effect is not particularly significant, and researchers working since have disputed most of the claimed increases in productivity. One enduring idea is that the workers appreciated being asked for their ideas, and worked harder due to this increased motivation – and while this is by no means a bad moral, there’s no particular reason to believe that this was the key factor at work. The workers could also have felt a desire to “please” the experimenters by showing a change, or simply worked harder in response to being observed more closely.

For me, the real moral of the Hawthorne effect is in the seductive power of the story. Many, perhaps most, of those who repeat it have never read any of the academic writing on the subject, and most textbook mentions of it do not mention the dozens of other experiments outside of lighting that took place. The thing about the mythical version is that it’s a great story. Change, outcome, surprise, attributed cause, attributed effect – simple and dynamic. The human mind is hard-wired to tell stories, and if the data don’t particularly fit our preferred version, we have a strong tendency to change – or just forget – the inconvenient ones.

Are the Hawthorne studies the story of workers being motivated simply by being involved? Or of workers being motivated by the fear of losing their jobs? Or of over-eager researchers over-interpreting their data? It could be one, several, or all of the above. As usual in life, the reality is a little more complicated than we like our stories to be.




One response

5 11 2009
links for 2009-11-05- Exploring New Learning Spaces

[…] The Hawthorne Effect, or, a lesson in the power of a story « The Organizational Scientist (tags: storytelling) […]

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